Mother's Always Right
Kelly Bishop has played the mother many times over
by Marcia Worth-Baker
Ask Kelly Bishop, South Orange resident and star of Gilmore Girls, what drew her to the role of Emily Gilmore, and she recalls, "The pilot was simply the best script I ever read." And in a show business career that began at age 18, Bishop has seen her share of scripts. A Colorado native, Bishop moved to New York City after high school, hoping to dance professionally. She was hired by the Rockettes and danced steadily for a decade. "I love dancing, I worked all the time, and I like being on stage," explains Bishop. "It was wonderful."
Then at age 28, approaching what she calls "an awkward age" for dancers, with the ever-present fear of injury in mind, she gave herself two years to develop her career in other directions. Just a year later, director-choreographer Michael Bennett offered her a part in A Chorus Line. "How wonderful was that?" laughs Bishop. "It's a play about dancing!"
Bishop fondly recalls the process of creating one of the most celebrated shows on Broadway. "Michael treated me like real actress from the first day. He asked each of us to speak into tape recorders, just talking about our lives, where we came from, why we dance. The writers based the script on us." Bishop's character, "Sheila" sings "At the Ballet." "Sheila was me," says Bishop with conviction. "That was my childhood." Broadway theatergoers needed no convincing; the show was a hit and Bishop won both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award.
Bishop loves live theater and her extensive theater credits include the lead in the Broadway production of Six Degrees of Separation, as well as Broadway productions of Neil Simon's Proposals, the Tony Award-winning The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Bus Stop. She also has a great deal of experience in television and movies with credits ranging from Paul Mazursky's big-screen drama An Unmarried Woman, the box-office hit Dirty Dancing, Howard Stern's comedy Private Parts, Wonder Boys, Blue Moon, Café Society, Miami Rhapsody, Queens Logic and Me and Him.
So what does a busy actress do in her limited spare time? Ten-year South Orange resident Bishop and her husband, TV talk show host Lee Leonard, enjoy the local restaurants. "I golf for my husband," laughs Bishop. An avid animal lover, Bishop supports the Jersey Animal Coalition and simply enjoys spending time at home with her own dogs. She explains that she loved the South Orange and Maplewood community "at first sight," and since Gilmore Girls especially values her proximity to the airport for her "commute" to Hollywood.
On the set, Bishop is a self-described "stickler" for knowing her lines, for which she credits her theater background. "I respect the script," she explains. "My job is to deliver lines as written as well as I can." Sometimes she delivers the lines repeatedly, as a TV master is made, then a reverse master and coverage shots for the same scene. Bishop is grateful for her years as a dancer, when she learned to memorize a routine and cues quickly.
Bishop describes her Gilmore Girls colleagues as "a pleasant bunch to work with," and she "adores," the series creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. The heart of the show is the mother-daughter relationships of young Rory Gilmore and her mother Lorelai, and that of Lorelai and Bishop's character, Emily Gilmore, Lorelai's mother and Rory's grandmother. Bishop's relationship with her mother was "very close," like Rory and Lorelai. Bishop recalls watching her mother iron late at night. "We would talk for hours. It was girlfriend stuff. That's what I remember most." Bishop's mother died ten years ago. "I still pick up the phone sometimes to call her and then I remember," says Bishop. "She was extremely supportive of me and proud of my success."
Bishop has worked with scores of actors, including some of Hollywood and Broadway's brightest stars. True to her Gilmore Girls role as a mother and grandmother, she maintains a lively interest in her stage and screen "children." They include Christian Slater, Linda Fiorentino, Jennifer Gray, Suzanne Cryer, and - currently - Lauren Graham. "Don't you just wish you looked like her?" asks Bishop, in an aside. "She's just gorgeous."
As for what the coming season will bring for the Gilmore family and friends, Bishop disclaims all knowledge. With a twinkle in her eye, though, she predicts "Rory will live in her grandparents' pool house for some time." Bishop would like to see Christopher, Rory's father, back in the Gilmore girls' lives. In the future, she sees Rory "off to Europe to become a famous journalist."
As to predicting her own future, Bishop just laughs. She looks forward happily to several seasons of Gilmore Girls. "After that, who knows?" she asks with a shrug. "It's all been great fun so far."
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